Mary Oliver, Companion


Themes and images reappear in a poets’ body of work. If that poet is gentle with the delivery of these themes and images, their frequent inclusion is welcomed by readers. Mary Oliver was a gentle writer in this regard. Make no mistake: Not all of Oliver’s poems are warm and quiet. Indeed, some are stirring and stormy. But her delivery of even difficult topics is gentle and nurturing.

In his review of Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, (Poetry magazine, January 2009) Michael Hofmann labels Lowell as a linebacker in his approach to poetry and his personal encounters while giving Bishop the role of dervish, ever-skirting the literary world and its assembled personae. If we must assign labels and roles to artists to help us understand them, I feel that Mary Oliver might best be understood as a companion.

I love and admire Lowell, Bishop, and Oliver as I have come to know them as poets through their works. I also enjoy them as people as I have learned about them through biographies or, in the case with Oliver, recent articles about her life and her book on writing poetry, A Poetry Handbook (Harcourt, 1992). But I can imagine Lowell the tall, imperious, at times obtuse guest, bearing over me, taking a bit of my life with him as he leaves after a visit. I image the demure Bishop accepting a coffee, then a scotch, then leaving with nary an excuse or explanation, just…going away, going someplace else. But I imagine I could walk the beach near Oliver’s home and chatting with her about the sea, the gulls just overhead, even the condition of the sky as we stroll. Being poets, we’d both eagerly jot down, then share, notes of our walk.

This is all fanciful, perhaps even farcical to those who know these three greats better than I do. But this is my essay, not theirs, so I hope you will humor me.

By considering beginning stanzas from poems by Lowell, Bishop, and Oliver, the case for the above-given roles for the three may become clearer.

Here the jack-hammer jabs into the ocean;
My heart, you race and stagger and demand
More blood-gangs for your nigger-brass percussions,
Till I, the stunned machine of your devotion,
Clanging upon this cymbal of a hand,
Am rattled screw and footloose. All discussions
End in the mud-flat detritus of death.
My heart, beat faster, faster. In Black Mud
Hungarian workmen give their blood
For the martyre Stephen who was stoned to death.

From “Colloquy in Black Rock” by Robert Lowell

Lots of noise here. Lots of crashing and thudding. A grace is present, of course, but it is a headlong grace, one going for the images and messages in the poem shoulders set with firm and fast steps lunging ahead.

Here is a coast; here is a harbor;

here, after a meager diet of horizon, is some scenery;

impractically shaped and—who knows?—self-pitying mountains,

sad and harsh beneath their frivolous greenery,

with a little church on top of one. And warehouses,

some of them painted a feeble pink, or blue,

and some tall, uncertain palms. Oh, tourist,

is this how this country is going to answer you

From “Arrival at Santos” by Elizabeth Bishop.

Like our short visit from Robert Lowell above, there is much action in Bishop’s stanzas. Yet isn’t it a somewhat quieter action, a somewhat more sedate view of a place and scene? And we get less of Bishop herself in this sample – indeed, Bishop is absent in many of her own works while Lowell is a presence in many of his. Our dervish is dancing as we observe the warehouses and mountains. She does not dance to be noticed; she dances so as not to communicate very directly of herself.

And now our companion, Mary Oliver:

Cold now.
Close to the edge. Almost
unbearable. Clouds
bunch up and boil down
from the north of the white bear.
This tree-splitting morning
I dream of his fat tracks,
the lifesaving suet.

I think of summer with its luminous fruit,
blossoms rounding to berries, leaves,
handfuls of grain.

From “Cold Poem.”

We are given a tree-splitting morning full of guttural consonance, creating a stirring effect ala Lowell’s stanza above. The second stanza feel more like Bishop’s way with words, calming the scene down, calming and warming our morning walk.

All three sections from these poems deal with the natural world, Lowell and Bishop adding the impact of humans on the patch of earth they are addressing while Oliver brings to our attention nature unto itself. Each poet serves as our guide, but Oliver shares her dreams and imaginings with us in ways Bishop and Lowell do not. Lowell stirs us up, Bishop points, Oliver whispers.

Let’s join Mary Oliver again, this time while sitting on a rock wall in her poem “Knife.”

when I sit like this, quiet,
all the dreams of my blood
and all outrageous divisions of time
seem ready to leave,
to slide out of me.
Then, I imagine, I would never move.

Plain language expressing plain thoughts, thoughts we can all share in and probably sympathize (if not empathize) with. Isn’t this what companions do, don’t they share with each other? Can we feel we truly share with Lowell in his pulsating pronouncements and in the landscape as Bishop places embellishments upon it? We can certainly understand and feel what both poets are saying. We can more easily, maybe even readily, share in what Oliver presents to us.

Oliver shares with us a visit from her reportedly abusive father.

The door fell open

and I knew I was saved
and could bear him,
pathetic and hollow,
with even the least of his dreams
frozen inside him,
and the meanness gone.
And I greeted him and asked him
into the house,
and lit the lamp,
and looked into his blank eyes
in which at last
I saw what a child must love,
I saw what love might have done
had we loved in time.

From “A Visitor.”

No hiding here; Oliver is the assumed persona, the “I,” of this poem. She again shares with us in a conversational voice, perhaps confiding in us, inviting us to feel with her what she has felt, inviting to let us feel it with her. We need not feel we are her friends, we merely need to share in her personhood, her identity of a child whose love of a parent has not always synched-up as it should have.

One final sample, this from her oft-quoted poem “When Death Comes.”

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

If this isn’t one companion sharing with another about the coming of the big good-bye, I don’t know what is. Almost every poet has written about death, just as they have written about life, love, nature, moral issues, and emotions. Yet has any poet written about these themes as deftly while at the same time as seemingly artlessly as Mary Oliver? There is much apparent artifice and/or craftmanship in much of poetry. In virtually none of Oliver’s body of work can we point to an example of over-crafted, over-worked writing. Labeled a “nature writer,” I find Oliver more a natural writer, a writer who presents poetry as if it were to be spoken and read plainly, shared as a companion might share her ideas and experiences with an invited guest.

The stanzas in this essay have been removed from context, since I cannot include an entire poem here due to copyright restrictions. Likewise, they were selected to help prove my point. Lowell certainly could and did write some poems with a gentler tone. Bishop, from all I have read of her works and read about her on a critical level, never bared her soul in a confessional way in her public writing. She was practically absent in a good number of her poems. Oliver is present in much of her poetry. But when he proclaims, how can we feel as anything but an audience member to Lowell? When Bishop hides, shies away as she presents her observations, how can we feel all that comfortable? While Mary Oliver was a private person, we feel a sense of connection with her and the world as she presents it. She is with us as we accompany her on her walks in the woods or along a shoreline, while looking at an old barn that is being held onto by a fractured family, gazing up at geese, and a thousand other vistas. She shares with us as few other world-class poets can or will.


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